Professional wrestling has been a mainstay in Pittsburgh for more than a century. The first reference to matches in the region dates back to 1860. Photographer David Aschkenas has dedicated a long project to it.
From Ed “Strangler” Lewis and Lou Thesz to “Whipper” Billy Watson and “The French Angel” Maurice Tillet, the top and most unique professional wrestlers in the industry grappled in and around Pittsburgh for generations, well before star Bruno Sammartino immigrated with his family from Italy in 1950.
From the historic Duquesne Gardens to Islam Grotto, Zivic Arena, and Forbes Field, Pittsburgh played host to countless wrestling cards. Professional wrestling was on television in Pittsburgh during the early 1950’s, but the sport would not really resonate until 1958 when Studio Wrestling joined the WIIC broadcast schedule. The Channel 11 program was hosted for almost all of its run by the iconic “Chilly” Bill Cardille. Together Cardille and the Saturday evening staple became synonymous with the term “professional wrestling” in Pittsburgh and defined the sport until 1974.
During the “Studio Wrestling” era World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF) Champion Bruno Sammartino would wrestle alongside local as well as international stars and take on a rogue's gallery of challengers. George “The Animal” Steele, and Walter “Killer” Kowalski, were among the biggest names of the time. Established stars like Dominic DeNucci would call Pittsburgh home, and others like Bill Eadie, James J. Dillon, and “Big Bully” Nick Busick considered their time here to be the genesis of their careers.
It’s where athletes like Joe Abby, Frank Durso, Bobby Hunt and Bucky Palermo became beloved personalities and household names in many Pittsburgh neighborhoods. Through the years professional wrestling and the athletes who came from the region—such as Johnny Valiant and including former World Champions Larry Zbyszko, Shane Douglas and Kurt Angle—all represented Pittsburgh well.
And while the enormous companies were supported by television, territorial and “outlaw” groups ran home-grown shows for decades. The Keystone State Wrestling Alliance (KSWA) began its run in February, 2000 at a high school gymnasium. “The first time I encountered the wrestlers of the KSWA was about 10 years ago,” says photographer David Aschkenas who has been documenting these events since they started. “It was a Saturday afternoon in September in a small town called Millvale, a few miles from downtown Pittsburgh. ‘Millvale Days,’ as it was called, is a 2 day county fair like festival that happens every September. The main streets are closed and children’s rides, makeshift bandstands, and food vendors fill the streets. Walking through the streets I came across a ring set up for a wrestling match.”
Over the years, the KSWA—just like other established Independent Wrestling promotions around the country—have home bases, but often travel via delivery trucks and grunt labor to fairs, community days and fundraisers throughout specific regions. Most cards are held inside with concrete floors and folding chairs; however, many are run outside under mostly hot and sunny summer skies. “For the past 10 years, I attended every year to photograph,” says David Aschkenas. “The weather always played a part in the photos. Some years it would be gray and cloudy, sometimes blinding sun. I loved using the dark shadows in the compositions on sunny days. The wrestlers always allowed me access to photograph from the edges of the ring to be up close to the action.”
It’s here where the local VIPs—Shawn Blanchard and Lou Martin—hold down the fort with Tommy Faime. It’s where they wage an endless psychological and intellectual battle with the kindhearted Owner of the KSWA, Bobby O. It’s where fans watch the ascent of KSWA Heavyweight Champion Mitch Napier and challengers like Harley T. Morris and “King” Del Douglas.
Long-time veterans like Lord Zoltan and old hand T-Rantula battle with or against wrestlers like Justin Sane or The Jester. High fliers like Jay Flash and Kris Kash wrestle with and against Anthony Alexander and Shane Starr. It’s were smaller wrestlers and managers—like Mayor Mystery and David Marbell—were in the same stead as giants like Mike Malachi and the seven-foot-tall Jack Massacre, or newcomer Matt McGraw.
Others who live out their dreams, such as Bob Badfingers and Vinnie Stone, battle on weekends and holidays until unforeseen injuries cut their careers short. Referees like Shawn Patrick, with his 30 years in the business, Jimmy James and his decade of experience compliment a younger arbiter like David Fedor, who is always eager and looking to grow. “Sadly, due to Covid 19, the event was canceled this year,” adds David Aschkenas. “I’m keeping my fingers crossed for next year's event.”
It’s where fans—young and old—know what they are getting each and every event, each and every year. They know that they can root for a favorite, or boo a competitor forced to wear a Chicken Suit. And they all wait to see what happens in the Battle Royal.
It’s America…it’s Pittsburgh…it’s Independent Wrestling…the way you like it.
By Thomas Leturgey
Thomas Leturgey is a journalist specializing in sports and based in Pittsburgh, USA.
More information on David Aschkenas, his work and his book here.